Theatrical Review – Disney’s Aladdin Jr.
By Dick Franztreb
Everybody’s heard the term “movie magic.” Well here’s “stage magic.” Who didn’t love Disney’s Aladdin” when the movie came out in 1992 with Robin Williams’ wonderful portrayal of the Genie. Well, Aladdin became a Broadway musical that opened this past spring, and somehow the “junior” version is being licensed by Disney already. El Dorado Musical Theatre is now offering “Disney’s Aladdin Jr.” through November 16, and it is nothing short of “stage magic.” I attended opening night, was so impressed I brought my family the next day, and then came again a third time in three days so I could see the second cast. Given the choice between seeing the movie and this brilliant, creative stage production, I can’t imagine who would prefer the movie.
The most wonderful thing about this show is that it is full of surprises. I’d love to enumerate some of them for you, but then you wouldn’t have the pleasure of the surprise if you saw the show, would you? Let’s just say that a lot of the action takes place above the stage. On the other hand, maybe the most wonderful thing about this show is the creativity. There are so many clever little touches: humorous gestures, throw-away lines, sight gags, etc. And then there are the major creative features: the intricate and graceful dancing, the stage-filling production numbers that are positively eye-popping – and fun, the costumes that are an explosion of color and fancy (the costumes of the parrot Iago and the Genie are works of art). And speaking of works of art, the projections on the proscenium, on the moveable scrim, and on the screen at the back of the stage are a brilliant part of the magic of this show (designed by Carpet Cast Genie, Zach Wilson). They are professional-quality images, often animated and, together with props and set pieces, they make it easy to believe you’re in another world. It’s nothing short of a visual feast.
I haven’t said anything yet about the acting, and yet I should have started there. The show is double-cast, and I wanted to see both because I have favorite performers in both casts. Naturally, I wound up preferring one or the other actor in a given role, but it would be hard to choose which cast to view because each had its strengths. Suffice it to say, though, that the Aladdins were heroic, the Jasmines winsome (with beautiful voices), the Iagos (parrots) delightful, the Jafars delightfully wicked, the 5 women peddlers graceful, the Sultans appropriately mincing, and the carpets as cute as they could be. I don’t feel I can acknowledge all the names, but I have to call out the Genies, cousins Andrew and Zach Wilson. The best part of the movie (at least for an adult) was Robin Williams, and you will be blown away when you see how accurately these two young men act out Williams’ voice-over role. It had to be the high point for the adults in the audience, but then you should have seen the children line up afterwards to have their picture taken with the Genie or get him to sign their program. It was consummate comic artistry on the part of both of the Wilsons.
The greatest frustration in writing about these shows is acknowledging the army of people whose best efforts make it all possible. Director/Choreographer Debbie Wilson is the chief creative genius, but look at this enumeration of contributors from her Director’s Notes: “In order for all those things to happen, there are 142 people working at each performance of EDMT’s Aladdin to bring you the magic. This includes: cast, stage managers, lighting, sound and projection operators, backstage coordinators and crew, ushers, ticket office staff, dressers, wardrobe staff, mic dressers, prop masters, harness moms and fly dads. And before we even arrived at the theatre, there were the designers for costumes, sets, lighting, sound, makeup, and projections. Not to mention our vocal director, choreographers, producers, tech director, cast coordinators, photographers, set constructors, set painters, prop creators, playbill designers, logo/poster designer, graphic artist, rehearsal monitors, and director. It takes a village to bring the city of Agrabah to life onstage.”
There is quality in every aspect of this show. The stage dazzles with color and activity. To me, the production is nothing short of a masterpiece of stagecraft. But there is one more thing. It’s easy to forget that these are young actors – none over 20, and I’d be surprised if there were any over 18. You forget until you focus on some of the really young performers, and then you realize that EDMT is fundamentally an educational organization. The youngest cast members aren’t window dressing. They sing and move and act – to the degree of their ability, which, along with their stage presence, is constantly being developed. And I marvel at the creative ways in which they are made to be an important part of these productions. That said, the highlight of opening night for me took place on the darkened stage before the lights went up on one of the scenes. The stage was full of performers, and from my vantage point in the first row, I noticed one little girl, no more than 7 or 8 years old, jumping up and down in the dark because she was so excited for the scene that was about to start. It made me reflect that the enormous pleasure I got out of this wonderful show was nothing compared to hers, something that might quite possibly change the course of her life. As I write this, there are only 10 performances left. The shows I saw were nearly sold out. Bring your kids and grandkids (as I did), and treat them (and yourself) to something really special.